DuPage County

Finding help an uphill battle for bar, restaurant owners

Marco Conte was all set to open his new La Grange restaurant, Marco’s Kitchen, in March 2020. His staff was trained and ready to go, but a day before he cut a red ribbon to open his business, the country began to close.

For Conte, that meant laying off six of his 10 employees before the restaurant ever seated a customer. He pivoted his business plan to accommodate carryout and reduced the hours of Marco’s Kitchen, 26 S. La Grange Road, in order to survive.

Conte still does not know the full potential of his dream, he said.

“Help wanted, hiring all shifts.”

Much like signs of social distancing and “mask required,” this cry for employees has become the new normal with restaurant owners continuing to fight back against the challenges of the pandemic.

“Employers are literally competing for employees, and the demand for employees is so high that the power is really in the job seeker’s hands rather than the restaurant’s,” said Michael Cassa, president and CEO of the Downers Grove Economic Development Corp. “This transcends types of restaurants and community lines. Every restaurant is feeling this and is having to face different challenges than we’ve seen in other industries.”

The restaurant business is one that typically employs a larger number of people and sees more turnover than other businesses, Cassa said. The hours can be long, employees have to manage customers, and the pay isn’t always competitive, said Todd Davies, owner of The Foxtail, 5237 Main St., and Cadence Kitchen, 5101 Mochel Drive, both in Downers Grove.

These challenges make hiring in the industry different to begin with, but factoring in COVID-19 restrictions that applied uniquely to restaurants makes the uphill battle only harder, Davies said. Davies tried to combat some restaurant industry standards by offering insurance, paid time off and other benefits not usually afforded to restaurant employees, he said. Still, his staff is operating below the norm. In his efforts to keep his businesses alive, Davies moved all of his employees from Cadence Kitchen to The Foxtail, his 16-day-old business at the time.

“The second shutdown demoralized everyone. We lost people left and right,” Davies said. “We lost a lot of staff to other jobs that they saw as more reliable, and the industry at this point is just decimated because no one wants to work in it anymore.”

Restaurants in DuPage and Cook counties saw two indoor dining bans, resulting in about 200 days of empty booths. Beyond those days, capacity restrictions continued to limit what a business in the food industry could do, Cassa said.

John Rot, owner of Q-BBQ, 70 S. La Grange Road, said many restaurant owners believed staffing issues would resolve themselves after unemployment subsidies ended in Illinois, but that has not been the case. After the $300-a-week federal subsidy ended, employers nationwide added just 194,000 jobs in September, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s gotten to a point where, I think, if someone comes in and interviews well, they’re not going to be turned away,” Cassa said. “Restaurant people have been very resilient, and they’ve very much been tackling any situation by doing whatever needs to be done.”

Whether that means an owner is cooking and serving or staffers are working jobs they are unaccustomed to, Rot, Davies and Conte are all familiar with the sacrifices the pandemic has pushed upon their industry. All of their restaurants have positions open including cooks, bartenders, servers and front-of-house employees.

Despite the challenges, restaurant owners are trying very hard to continue operating their businesses in a way that does not affect customers, Cassa said. Attempts to alleviate the staff issue, such as raising pay, is long overdue, the owners agree, but will eventually come at a cost to customers.

“It will be interesting to see how long the consumer will bite off the price increases happening and whether that will drive people back to the workforce,” Rot said. “We’re trying everything we can to fight this. We just don’t see a light at the end of this tunnel yet.”

Rot, Conte and Davies have all tried a number of hiring methods, including social media, hiring sites such as Indeed, and just plain word of mouth or signage posted in their windows. Conte, whose staff is now back up to six, had his two most recent employees come in because of the signs on his door.

Part of the trouble for Davies, he said, has been simply getting applicants to follow through and come in for an interview. He often has to call and email applicants multiple times. And while it appears the worst has come and gone, hesitancy to be too optimistic is all too real, Davies said.

“Other industries are wondering where the workforce went, and I don’t know. I did everything I could to keep my employees,” Davies said. “Restaurants dealt with the most in Illinois with closures and barriers to success. But restaurant people are resilient. You did what you had to do, and you just keep doing it.”